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Warped Vinyl Priorities

Peter Allen’s 1974 song “Everything Old Is New Again” may have a point, if the most recent annual report from the Recording Industry Association of America is anything to go by. If nothing else, you can listen now the way people listened then.

The RIAA report, as covered by The Wall Street Journal, noted that vinyl record sales are booming. Vinyl hit its highest revenue level since 1988, representing $419 million of the music industry’s revenues last year. With CD sales continuing to plunge, vinyl now makes up more than one-third of music sales in physical formats. True, vinyl is in no danger of dislodging streaming as the dominant way to listen to music these days. But demand has ballooned since the format’s low point a little more than a decade ago. Reflecting this rise in popularity, online music company Bandcamp recently unveiled a vinyl pressing service for independent artists, making vinyl available to artists who might otherwise find it challenging to offer the format to fans.

The resurrection of physical sales has been a blessing for independent record stores that managed to survive the long industry shakeout, but recently a dark lining has been revealed inside this platinum cloud. All this physical merchandise, in CD as well as vinyl album formats, has to be manufactured, packaged, warehoused and distributed in precise quantities and on tight schedules to meet the needs of artist tours, promotional schedules and big retailing sales periods like Black Friday. Major record labels, which washed their hands of these issues long ago, have concentrated their distribution through an Indiana firm known as Direct Shot. That company’s abilities seem to have been stretched to their limits, and then well beyond those limits, by the crush of new business. Things got so bad that independent stores banded together in an open letter to the record labels that was published in trade journal Billboard on July 16. “It is about as bad as it can be,” they wrote, in a plea to the labels to get the supply chain fixed ASAP.

I have seen the vinyl revival for myself. When visiting the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum (long one of my favorite places), I’ve noticed that the museum’s gift shop offers a wide assortment of vinyl albums – not only old classics, but the latest hits from some of the biggest modern country stars. In a trend that transcends genre, everyone who is anyone today wants their music pressed into vinyl.

I suspect this is because everyone who is anyone today is either old enough to suffer memory decline or too young to remember why we got rid of vinyl in the first place.

If you leave your smartphone in your car on a hot summer day, you won’t return to find it a warped, sticky, useless mess.

You can’t scratch a stream of ones and zeros, making a skip that will play the same 10 seconds of music over and over. Not unless the producer wants you to, anyway. But this is a cinch with vinyl. Your favorite digital music also won’t eventually end up reduced to a series of snaps, crackles and pops that sound more like a bowl of breakfast cereal than a recorded track.

Ever change the needle on a phonograph? Not fun. As the needles got tinier, our hands got bigger and clumsier. You can change an entire cartridge instead, but that can get expensive.

Yes, any decent stereo phonograph will let you vary the pitch so you can make Barry White sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks. This is fun for a while, but it gets old.

I know that audiophiles claim the sound they get from a vinyl record is “richer” or “truer” than the sound that comes from the sampling of a digital music file. After all, we have analog ears to go with our analog records. But most of us don’t have eyes that can distinguish the individual frames of a film as they fly past at anywhere from 24 to 60 images per second. Likewise, most of us don’t have ears that are going to pick up the difference between a digital file and an audio groove. Well, except for the skips, crackles, pops and snaps. Those we can hear.

Speaking of hearing, I find it ironic and somewhat annoying that the advent of high-definition audio arrived at a stage in my life when I have increasingly low-definition ears. I still truly enjoy music, especially when I play it through nice headphones – like the lovely set of Beats Studio phones that my staff got me to celebrate my last decennial birthday before becoming eligible to collect Social Security benefits.

You know what I really love to listen to through those headphones? Music. Digital music. Warpless, scratchless, 44.1 kilohertz (or better) CD-quality music that has been preserved in digital amber from the moment it left the musician’s lips or instrument until just before it reaches my head.

Even so, I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade. Go ahead and enjoy your vinyl. I own a bunch of old records that actually deserve to be heard on a nice system. (I gave away my last really good one a long time ago.) I would probably get a nice system to play them, too, if I weren’t busy listening to the same music on my favorite streaming service over those beautiful Bluetooth Beats.

So, to my colleagues: Thanks folks. You’re the best.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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